Ryan Saunders

Former Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders on Coach of the Year, guarding Embiid & playing hard

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Former Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders spoke to Franchise Sports and other European outlets as part of the NBA’s Junior Coaches Online Program.

Saunders gave insight into the coaches that have impressed him the most so far this season, how the three-ball is changing coaches decisions and what it’s like to try and scheme against the league’s most unguardable forces like Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid.

Coach of the Year

Asked about 2021-22 Coach of the Year race, Saunders said, “There are a lot of good coaches having great years… the job is one that takes a lot of people, so I’m sure if any of those coaches were here, they’d say they’ve got great staffs with them.

I’ve always been really impressed with J.B. Bickerstaff, and I’ve known J.B. for a long time. What Cleveland is doing and how they play the game in a different way with a lot of length, for him to be able to adapt and go against what was kind of accepted by all of us as coaches, is really impressive.

Taylor Jenkins has established a great culture, a great system of play… and I think Zach Kleiman and Tayshaun Prince, all those guys in the front office, they’ve done a great job of finding players that fit that system, but I think Taylor’s done a great job and those are two that really come to mind.”


Jenkins and Bickerstaff are two of the league’s youngest coaches — like Saunders was in Minnesota. The pair are considered frontrunners for Coach of the Year, though Saunders also mentioned the impressive work done by Monty Williams and Steve Kerr.

Three-point revolution

The Timberwolves were third in three-point attempts per game in Saunders’ last full season in charge.

He spoke about the three-point revolution that has swept across the NBA over the last 15 years, saying, “It’s changed the shots we emphasize as coaches. If a team’s taken 50 threes, you can’t be a team that takes 15 threes. At the end of the day, it’s basic math… it’s something we’ve all studied, and will continue to study. Golden State were at the forefront, and you look at Mike D’Antoni’s teams in Phoenix and what they were doing early on.”

While analytics is viewed as anti-mid-range by some, Saunders is well aware of the value in mid-rangers for the right players.

“You’re starting to see more players, more elite players, accept the mid-range a little more. It’s not without really looking at those percentages and knowing that you need to be at this level of shooter at the mid-range for it to be an acceptable shot.”


Touching on his session with junior coaches later this month, Saunders noted how spacing has altered over the last decade.

“The three-point shot has changed the spacing. Something I’m planning on talking about at the Junior NBA is the five-out offense – it’s changed where we put bigs.”

Scheming against dominant bigs

We asked Saunders how teams can defend against the league’s best bigs, citing Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

He said, “I’ve been on the other side when you’re preparing for those guys, and I say to just pray. Pray to stop them.

“Teams are going to try to show different looks. It’s a situation where you know you’re probably not going to stop that player, you’re just trying to limit him a bit. Is he a scorer or a playmaker? He can’t be both. When that happens, it’s just bad for your defense as a whole…

“I’ve always been a believer in looking at numbers and analytics, and we have a lot of resources so we’re able to prepare and see how guys are being guarded… you use analytics to question feel, and you use feel to question analytics. The answer is probably somewhere in between.

“I don’t have a good answer on how to stop Embiid, stop Jokic, stop Giannis, another of those guys, but the safe answer would say to try and give them different looks. Hope they’re not a scorer and a facilitator, make them be one or the other.”

Importance of playing hard

Saunders, who has a strong reputation for player development, also spoke on the importance of player-specific plans, and how playing hard is the most crucial skill for players coming into the NBA.

“It’s all based on the individual. That’s why there’s so much investment and focus on tailored development plans, expertise through different forms of coaches or analytics and technology.

“Something I think is a skill now in the NBA is playing hard. If a player comes from college and doesn’t play hard, that’s a tough thing to develop in the NBA, because that’s something that’s either in you consistently or it isn’t.”

The Jr. NBA Coaches – Online program presented by Gatorade® is hosted on OWQLO and features 12 live virtual coaching clinics from February to September for app users 16 years and older in the UK. The first clinic with former NBA head coach Ryan Saunders takes place on Sunday, Feb. 13. For more info, visit owqlo.comgatorade.co.uk and @NBAUK on Facebook and Twitter and @NBAEurope on Instagram.

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